How religion promotes forgiveness

Sorry forgivenessMany will be encouraged to learn that religion correlates with forgiveness. After all, it’s always good when religious people practice what they preach. However, the question remains as to how exactly adhering to a religion makes one more likely to forgive. Answers range from simply reducing to social factors to blindly following a diety. Research by sociologist Daniel Escher (University of Notre Dame) sheds much light on this question: having a collaborative relationship with God, currently participating in a religion, and believing that God forgives all explain this correlation.

Before measuring forgiveness, Escher has to explain what exactly he means by it. He first provides a general definition and then breaks it down into interpersonal forgiveness (forgiving others) and intrapersonal forgiveness (forgiving oneself). He defines forgiveness as “the reduction of negative responses and the production of positive ones toward an event, person, or group.” Concerning interpersonal forgiveness, this definition means a decrease in the desire to retaliate or to cut off relationship with the offender, and an increase in the desire to reconcile with the offender. As for intrapersonal forgiveness, this definition means one will not engage in self-destructive behaviors and will instead act kindly towards oneself.

Escher proposes three main factors that explain how religion promotes forgiveness. First, a collaborative orientation toward God facilitates forgiveness because in this type of relationship one desires union with God and so feels God as present when one interacts with others. As a result, this person will share problems with God, which reduces negative emotions and encourages forgiveness. Second, if one believes in a forgiving God, then imitating God naturally leads one also to forgive. Third and finally, Escher hypothesizes that participating in a religion will correlate with forgiveness. By “participating” he does not simply mean going to church once in a while, but making religion part of every day life. By so integrating religion, religious rituals and teachings (such as those about forgiveness) will more readily appear in everyday life (hence, there will be more forgiveness).

To test his theory, Escher uses data from the 1998 General Social Survey (GSS). The GSS provides a nationally representative sample of people living in the United States, and includes questions about religion, God, and forgiveness. More specifically, it has the following items about forgiveness: “I have forgiven myself for things that I have done wrong” and “I have forgiven those who hurt me.” God items include “I work together with God as partners,” “I look to God for strength, support, guidance,” “I feel God’s presence,” “I desire to be closer to or in union with God,” and “I know that God forgives me.” As for measuring religious participation, the survey used “I try hard to carry my religious beliefs over into all my other dealings in life.”

After running the appropriate statistical analyses, Escher’s hypotheses were confirmed. Religious affiliation does matter when it comes to forgiveness: those who were religious as a teenager but no longer are had lost some propensity for forgiveness. Interestingly enough, changing religions did not likewise result in a decrease of forgiveness, provided that the person was actively involved in their new religion. As expected, bringing religious beliefs into everyday life did have a statistically significant effect on forgiveness. Lastly, having a collaborative relationship with God did correlate with greater interpersonal and intrapersonal forgiveness.

Escher concludes: “The findings above show that relational orientation to God, divine imitation, and carrying religious beliefs into other dealings have, in general, positive and statistically significant effects on both self- and interpersonal forgiveness.” All of these ways help explain how exactly religion correlates with forgiveness. Of course, none of this means that religious people are somehow better than non-religious people, but simply that religion provides one way of acquiring the skill of forgiveness. And in a world that’s getting ever smaller, it’s certainly a good skill to have.

For more, see “How Does Religion Promote Forgiveness? Linking Beliefs, Orientations, and Practices” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.